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Psychologists Find Link Between High Risk Gambling and Loneliness


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Research illustrating a positive correlation between high risk gambling and feelings of social isolation were explored at the American Psychological Association (APA) annual meeting in Honolulu recently. Researchers conducted numerous experiments which proved their theory that lonely people are more likely to wager high amounts of money on gambling than people who aren't lonely.

The researchers articulated several concerns regarding their findings:

  1. Lonely people are more likely to risk, and lose, significant cash when gambling.
  2. Lonely people are more likely to be targeted by gambling companies who want to take their money.

American Psychological Association meeting 2013 (Honolulu, Hawaii)

Social Isolation: Definition

The researchers defined “social isolation” as the state of being alone or ostracized from a group. Whether the isolation is real or perceived is irrelevant to the research. A person's perception of their isolation, according to the experts, is what affects risk-taking behavior.

People can feel socially isolated for a variety of reasons. A widow who lives alone can feel socially isolated. A woman who is ignored at a party can feel socially isolated. A student who is bullied at school can feel socially isolated. The list of possible scenarios is endless.

The Danger is Increasing

The findings presented at the APA convention raised eyebrows for several reasons:

  1. Due to a weakened global economy, the gambling business is booming across the world. Money-hungry countries view gambling as a way to garner revenue for their ailing infrastructures. As gambling laws loosen, more casino and online gaming options become available.
  2. Research shows that more people feel socially disconnected from their peers today than ever before. The reasons for this include higher divorce rates, resulting in more one-person households, and technological advances which prompt people to hide behind their computers rather than interact with one another.

With more gambling options available than ever before, and more loneliness in the world than ever before, the danger is clear: people everywhere are at an increased risk for problem gambling.

The Experiments

Researchers conducted several experiments examining the relationship between social isolation and high-risk gambling. Here are two of the significant studies:

Ball Toss

Exclusion, isolation, anti-social behaviourSubjects played a ball tossing game on a computer. Some subjects received many tosses; others received few. The subjects who received fewer ball tosses were the “isolated” group. The subjects who received many ball tosses were the control group. After the ball activity, subjects were asked to choose between two different gambling options. Those who had received fewer ball tosses chose the riskier option, whereas those who had received a higher number of tosses chose the less risky option.

Live Interviews

People on the street were asked to choose between low winning odds with a high cash payoff and high winning odds and a low cash payoff. The people were subsequently interviewed about their perceived degree of social isolation. Subjects who experienced a higher degree of social isolation were more likely to prefer riskier games with low winning odds and a high cash payoff. Subjects who experienced little social isolation were more likely to choose less risky games with high winning odds and a low cash payoff.

The Need for Control: A Possible Explanation

The researchers asked themselves why they got these results. One possible explanation has to do with control. Having adequate funds affords people a stronger sense of control in life. People who are socially isolated feel less in control. It follows, therefore, that people who feel less in control would be willing to take more risks in order to regain control through money.

Similarly, people who feel socially connected with others would feel more in control of life and less in need of money. These people would be less inclined to take gambling risks in order to gain control.

Other Possible Explanations for High Risk Gambling

The researchers cross-checked their results to make sure their findings were truly due to subjects' feelings of social isolation. Other possible explanations for high risk gambling include low self esteem and sad mood. Grief gambling is, in fact, a documented phenomenon that may have been suffered by former San Diego mayor and widow Maureen O'Connor. O'Connor's problem gambling, possibly spurred on by grief over the death of her husband, led her to lose $13 million at casinos.

APA researchers believe that sad mood and low self esteem, while they sometimes correlate with high risk gambling, are not the root cause of the problem. Rather, they believe that social isolation triggers the need to take risks in an effort to win control. Indeed, the widowed O'Connor may have been suffering feelings of social isolation due to her grief. These feelings could explain, at least in part, her pathological behavior.

Research Findings: A Threat to Consumers

Consumers, armed with the information from these studies, may better be able to protect themselves from financial loss through greater self awareness. Marketers, however, may use this information in a more sinister way.

Rod Duclos, one of the APA researchers, expressed fear that unscrupulous gambling marketers could use the study results to target vulnerable consumer groups. Specifically, Duclos indicated his fears for the elderly population, as well as those who are divorced or widowed. The tactic of targeting specific consumer groups, known as database marketing, is a common practice among businesses. In the case of high risk gambling, however, the losses could be extreme.

Loyalty Cards: An Information Source

While casino loyalty cards seem like a great deal for patrons, a way to earn free meals and perhaps even a night's stay at a casino resort, the cards surreptitiously serve as an information source for marketers. It's no secret that data such as consumer age, marital status, and gender can be obtained from casino loyalty cards and used by casino managers for database marketing.

As the global gambling market grows, more people are likely to risk their money. People who feel socially isolated are more likely than others to wager high amounts while gambling. Research offered at the 2013 APA conference does its part to raise awareness for both consumers and marketers on this issue.